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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Reading Lebanese Civilian Casualties

I picked this up off the Washington Post opinion pages (off what they call a blog):
In the gruesome arithmetic of war, the actual carnage on a battlefield dominated by civilian areas, given Israel’s level of effort -- 3,000 attack sorties and about 30,000 artillery rounds fired against about 1,000 targets -- probably suggests to Israeli generals and government leaders that their campaign is "succeeding" in minimizing civilian harm.

Which is to say, from their perspective, Israel is killing about 31 people a day by the current count, not a seemingly high number.

I know some will say it is grotesque to count and average civilian deaths to gauge "success" and failure in war, but I do so in response to others using the Lebanese death toll as a measure, and also to demonstrate how distorted our view of conflict is, when measured in civilian deaths.

Appearing on CNN on Tuesday, Shimon Peres, an otherwise well-informed official, even said that the level of civilians deaths in Lebanon wasn't high because, look how many people NATO killed in the Kosovo war, "over 10,000."

The 10,000 figure caught my attention, because I conducted the definitive civilian bomb damage assessment (for Human Rights Watch) after the 1999, 78-day Kosovo bombing. We concluded that just more than 500 civilians died as a result of NATO bombing. That Israel's deputy prime minister has such a distorted image is worrisome, and it says an awful lot about the abuses of civilian casualties by politicians and commentators to make political points.

As the United States (should have) learned many years ago in Kosovo and Iraq, in terms of public opinion, it doesn’t really matter what the dominant precision-guided conventional military force does if people have a fundamentally different image of war’s carnage in their heads.

(Of course, the number of immediate civilian deaths does not take into consideration those that will accumulate in Lebanon among the elderly, very young and others taken ill due to the loss of water and sanitation associated with loss of electrical power, as occured following the 1991 Desert Storm campaign in Iraq.)

Despite air attacks against "strategic" targets throughout Lebanon, since the earliest hours of this 14-day campaign, Israel has demonstrated on the ground that it is limited in its tactical objectives vis-a-vis Hezbollah: It is using less than one full division and relying heavily on special forces because it is not intent on taking a large swath of Lebanese territory; it has urged Lebanese civilians to evacuate the battle zone to clear the way for battle against Hezbollah.

The limited strategy ironically has had two effects: First, by not using a larger force, and by not seeking to clear the entire area where Hezbollah operates further north, Israel may have undermined its tactical objectives in the far south. That is, unless Israel is willing to accept some number of military and civilian deaths in order to draw Hezbollah fire and fighters -- the magnet theory -- a route to their eventual and sure elimination.

Second, other than from the United States, Israel has not received any public acclaim or even acknowledgement through what it sees as its limited objectives and restraint. Despite its desire to minimize civilian harm and pursue a military strategy that the military claims is hamstrung by the requirement to avoid civilians -- that is, in not going after a larger band of Lebanese territory or in not using even greater force -- Israel just can not seem to convince anyone that it is fighting humanely or that it is on the side of Lebanese civilians.

Facing a more determined foe in the southern villages, the Israeli Defense Force is looking for moves it can make, particularly with its superior firepower, to undermine the dug-in fighters. One method will be to go after the cell-phone system, the primary means of communication and command and control amongst Hezbollah fighters. Such attacks, predictably, will again unleash condemnation for Israel attacking "civilian" infrastructure. The reason is that cell-phone towers are often on public and civilian buildings: Here in New England small towns, they are increasingly in church steeples.
And he's not even considering the extra casualties our soldiers have taken by sending in ground troops when we could have hit from the air. I wonder when - if ever - the IDF will ever decide to pull out all the stops again?


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